Danielle Boyer Trained SkoBots to Teach Kids Native American Languages ​​- The Daily Beast | Team Cansler

Language revival is critical to preserving Indigenous cultures and identities — but resources are dwindling. According to the US Census Bureau, less than 1 in 10 Indigenous children in the United States spoke a traditional language at home in 2010. That’s less than half the number of Native Americans aged 65 and older — an alarming number considering that many of these elders may be the only speakers of a given language. The lack of funding for tribal schools and other systemic obstacles such as geographic isolation only exacerbate the problem.

When this grim, generational problem plagued her Ojibwe community, inventor and Aboriginal advocate Danielle Boyer considered a modern solution: robots.

“We don’t have many resources for my language, Ojibwemowin,” Boyer told The Daily Beast. “The goal is to revitalize our languages ​​in an affordable way and in a way that children can relate to.”

It was not Boyer’s first experience of teaching children, nor was it her first experience of using robots as a teaching tool. By the time she was 10, she was teaching animal science as part of a homeschooling group for more than two dozen preschoolers. The experience opened her eyes to the importance of accessibility within school systems. After being bullied by her high school robotics team, Boyer pursued an engineering degree elsewhere in Southeast Michigan, eventually founding The STEAM Connection to promote inclusion in youth tech.

These spaces are colonial for the most part, and now we’re starting to think more about how to indigenize these spaces.

Joshuaa Allison Burbank

Their first mass-marketed product was Every Kid Gets a Robot (EKGAR), a robotics kit that teaches STEM-related engineering skills. As a non-profit organization, The STEAM Connection has shipped more than 8,000 units of EKGAR to children across North America absolutely free. But Boyer wanted to address issues that affect her own community more directly.

For this reason, Boyer developed SkoBots to address the lack of language resources in tribal schools. The name derives from “skoden,” a Native American slang term meaning “then let’s go.” She teamed up with Johns Hopkins University professor Joshuaa Allison-Burbank, a Diné and Pueblo language pathologist, who served as a mentor on the project. Boyer and Allison-Burbank, along with Taino designer Robert Maldonado, launched SkoBots in September 2021.

“We can make learning fun. We can involve students in designing and building the robot to personalize it,” Allison-Burbank told The Daily Beast. “This is related and important to culturally responsive teaching practices and also to identity reclaiming. These spaces are largely colonial, and now we’re starting to think more about how we can indigenize these spaces.”

However, to be effective in the classroom, SkoBots had to be more than just effective technology. They had to target both children (to interact with the bot) and the elderly (to feel comfortable recording sentences). Inspired by classic toys like Mr. Potato Head and Tickle Me Elmo, the trio built a colorful robot with a spoken personality. The device guides the wearer through a simple and guided lesson about their language. They also made it wearable on kids’ shoulders with a GoPro strap.

SkoBot inventor Danielle Boyer wears one of her customizable language learning devices strapped to her shoulder.

The STEAM connection

The design allowed for personalization. Allison-Burbank owns the first SkoBot to wear a hat and native jewelry to represent Navajo youth making their way into the world. Boyer’s SkoBot is bright pink, adorned with Ojibwe flowers and has a keychain that says “not ur Pocahottie.”

“We wanted the robots to be customizable so the kids could make them their own,” Boyer said. “They could reflect their communities and their cultures in the robot in a way we’ve never seen before.”

As it turned out, free robots were more attractive than expected. Boyer estimates her charity receives about 10,000 requests a week, and nearly 90 percent of approved requests must be fully subsidized. That’s no small feat when each SkoBot costs around $100 to manufacture. Boyer is the first to admit that the electronics costs between its microcontroller boards, speakers, and DC adapters are “sub-optimal” when added to 3D printing and other manufacturing costs.

She hopes to reduce unit costs to under $30 with in-house PCB manufacturing. Currently, The STEAM Connection’s largest financial backer is MIT, but the nonprofit organization has also raised funds from brands such as L’Oréal Paris and MTV.

Boyer estimates that her charity receives about 10,000 requests for SkoBots each week, and nearly 90 percent of approved requests must be fully subsidized. That’s no small order when it costs about $100 a piece to make.

The STEAM connection

A year after launch, SkoBots can give verbal instructions in four languages, including Ojibwemowin and Taino. The bots also know “snippets of phrases” from a handful of others. In addition, the robots can function with Bluetooth and an accompanying mobile app.

Allison-Burbank called the current robots successful teaching aids and interesting tools, but as artificial intelligence advances, he expressed optimism that a SkoBot could one day be less dependent on a human operator.

“The hope is that eventually we can give it more brains, more personality, so the robot can do a lot of those interactions,” Allison-Burbank said. As the robot’s speech recognition and speech-to-text software improves, he added, more two-way interactions could be possible.

Stephen Camarata, a professor of hearing and language sciences at Vanderbilt University, isn’t so convinced. Camarata told The Daily Beast he doesn’t think today’s artificial intelligence is powerful enough to replace the co-referencing that parents, teachers or even peers provide in children’s second language learning, although he acknowledged that social robots could be useful language teachers if they do were tailored to the level of the students.

If people designed robots that would actually hit the child where they are in their development, I’m optimistic that it would be very effective.

Stefan Camarata

“If you’re trying to elicit the words from the child and they’re not really in a functional communicative context, learning is limited,” Camarata said. “If people designed robots that would actually hit the child where they are in their development, I’m optimistic it would be very effective.”

Camarata cited a 2018 research article summarizing several previous studies on language learning using social robots and children. The authors found mixed results, but found positive associations between social behavior and engagement. According to the article, humanoid or animal-shaped robots were also “generally perceived as more helpful, believable, informative, and pleasant to interact with than animated characters.” SkoBots strike a strange middle ground – they exist in physical form, but still resemble a minion more than any human or animal. This could potentially limit his ability to teach children effectively.

As useful as social robots are, the best methods of revitalization still involve government-sponsored school systems, according to director of the University of Pittsburgh PhD program in Communication Studies and Disorders, Leah Fabiano-Smith.

“What I’ve seen with initiatives like SkoBots is that without institutional or infrastructural support, we’re seeing innovation in a lot of communities,” she told The Daily Beast. “I’d like to see the US budget invest in education and then maybe we’ll see language revitalization programs, but that seems like something of a pipe dream in our current political climate.”

Fabiano-Smith also pointed to capitalism’s deprioritization of Native American language education, which has been particularly devastating to groups who have already “eviscerated their culture, their language, their traditions because of settler-colonialism.”

“The value in it has nothing to do with our financial system,” Fabiano-Smith said. “It’s almost something you can’t really put a price tag on.”

As she travels across the country introducing SkoBots into schools and building language resources, Boyer embarks on another mission – learning Ojibwemowin herself. With only a year of formal university education, she had already done much of her learning outside of the classroom.

It’s certainly an excuse to work with her own elders, but Boyer said the educational tool has helped her significantly to make progress.

“Part of the reason I created the robot was to support my own learning journey,” Boyer said. “When you learn something and you teach it, it really solidifies it.”

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